The world might be all about social media, but a good social network is worth considering, writes David Quinn
Critics dismiss religion as pie in the sky at best, and an actively harmful, regressive force at worst. That is, they believe religion is a form of escapism, or else it unleashes fanaticism and violence upon the world and promotes social attitudes that repress certain groups, not least women.
Such are the charges anyway. At one and the same time they are far too simplistic and also capture a certain truth, because religion can do these things, just as virtually as ideas can. For example, socialism and nationalism have been the cause of fanaticism and violence even though they try to be unifying forces. Liberalism, for its part, makes the individual the basic unit of society and helps to dissolve the social bonds, including the family.
Liberal individualism also weakens religious commitment. Again, there will be plenty of people who think this a good thing, but when we don’t feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves, we can easily find ourselves isolated and alienated and that is never a good thing.
A new Irish study has just been published which examines the lives of 6,000 people over the age of 50. It looks in particular at their levels of religious involvement and finds that those who attend church regularly have fewer mental health problems than those who do not. Are you paying attention, Simon Harris?
The study was released by the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin.
First of all, it looked at levels of regular religious attendance among those over 50. Given how religious attendance in general has declined in Ireland in recent decades, the results were a bit surprising because 44% of those taking part in the study attend church every week, a further 10% attend once or twice a month and another 10% more than once a week.
We can easily find ourselves isolated and alienated and that is never a good thing”
This adds up to almost two-thirds of the over 50s in Ireland attending church regularly, higher than expected maybe. The study then found that this group has lower levels of depression than in the general population. That’s a very good thing indeed.
What’s going on? Well, one explanation seems that regular church attendance is a sign of being part of a wider social network, decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness.
As one of the researchers, Prof. Rose Anne Kenny put it: “The importance of continued social engagement and social participation as we age is well established and has been associated with improved health and wellbeing and lower mortality.”
However, the study also found that there is a link between church attendance and better mental health over and above participation in social networks. It says that increased social connectedness is only part of the explanation, and this “indicated that there may be other mechanisms through which religiosity is related to mental health”.
It does not know exactly what this is, but Prof. Patricia Casey provides a clue. As she tells The Irish Catholic this week: religious participation “gives hope, meaning and perspective” to people when life challenges them that they might otherwise not have.
In other words, they can rely on something bigger than themselves when they suffer a set-back.
The study also examines how important religion is to the over 50s. There were significant gender differences here. Just under 15% of women said it was not important versus almost 25% of men. Conversely, 56% of women said it was very important versus 42% of men. The rest said it was “somewhat important to them”.
Interestingly, the study found that people who say religion is important to them but do not attend church regularly are more likely, not less, to suffer from depressive symptoms than the general population.
This seems strange. The researchers speculate that such individuals may feel particularly isolated because they see how religion has declined in Ireland and lack the benefits of meeting fellow religious believers at church on a regular basis.
As church attendance continues to decline in Ireland, what will happen to the mental health of our growing population of older people?
Prof. Kenny says we will have to develop “alternative ways to socialise…as we develop into a more secular society”.
But that is easier said than done and it overlooks the fact that the study itself sees a link between good mental health and regular church attendance over and above the greater social connectedness.
We are meaning-seeking creatures. Ultimately, we are God-seeking creatures”
Perhaps that something is the fact the religious people pray more and perhaps, as Professor Casey says, religion links them to something much bigger than themselves. Religion is a primary source of meaning and purpose, which is one reason why it is so universal and so persistent over time. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Ultimately, we are God-seeking creatures.
As St Augustine famously said: “We are made for you, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”
Can any kind of secular social network really replace what religion offers? The decline of religion in Ireland is linked to wider trends in society. As mentioned earlier, various forms of social participation are in decline, not just religion. Trades unions are far smaller than they once were. So are political parties. We marry at lower rates and divorce and separate in bigger num bers.
All of this is in large part a consequence of our turn towards radical individualism. Greater church attendance among the over 50s helps to protect them against this social trend and they should be very glad of it. They know a ‘secret’ the rest of society is forgetting.